Ever since I was small. I was convinced that if I only asked you, you would carry me over Niagara on your shoulders. I was dying to do it.
Based on the nineteenth-century aerialist, this is the story of Carlo, a young follower of the artist Blondin, who persuades Blondin to take his art to its limit by carrying Carlo on his shoulders across a tightrope above Niagara Falls. In preparation for this dangerous act, they must move and think as one, but these two men must tread carefully, negotiating their way through the balance of power in their relationship. A foot wrong and all is lost.
The play begins with a prologue which is an entry from the Encyclopaedia Britannica about the acrobat and tightrope walker, Jean François Gravelet (1824 – 97), who went by the name of ‘Blondin’. We are told about his various impressive historical feats. He walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope ‘blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man on his back, and sitting down midway to make and eat an omelette’.
A young man, Carlo, pays Blondin a visit in his dressing room after a performance. He has come to accuse Blondin of deceiving his public, and of ‘selling out’ to commercialisation. In all the publicity for his shows, Blondin promises to break a dozen eggs into an omelette while on the tightrope above Niagara Falls, then cook it and eat it. But Carlo has been observing him closely through a telescope and saw that it was not in fact 12 eggs, but 8 which Blondin broke into the frying pan; the rest were lost to the foaming water below. Carlo demands that Blondin come clean and confess this to his public. Blondin at first dismisses Carlo, but then cannot resist Carlo’s refusal to shower him with the admiration he has grown accustomed to. From here the subtly shifting sands of power in this relationship begin.
Carlo insists that Blondin could do better, that he could challenge himself to push the boundaries of his art. Carlo sees that Blondin achieves all his tricks with ease, no longer frightened or stretched by the acts he undertakes. He claims that for Blondin the rope is simply a crutch he clings to but doesn’t need, that he could fly if he wanted to. Blondin dismisses his suggestions as ludicrous and asks him to leave.
But Blondin seeks Carlo out after this visit and discovers that he purports to be a scientist and is writing a book about him. When Carlo returns to his dressing room at Blondin’s request, he makes a proposition: that Carlo take part in a new act by sitting on his shoulders as he crosses the Falls on the tightrope. Carlo knew that this was what Blondin had in mind. The two men then discover that they are not so dissimilar in life experience. They are orphans, with no emotional ties to anyone and neither of them has anything to lose.
After some machinations, each one expressing fear and doubts about undertaking such a treacherous act, they arrive at an understanding of what it is they must do. The two men must think and act as one, they must join together to create one being which they name ‘Icaron’.
This play charts the balance of power between one man and another as they undertake a challenge where both stand to lose their lives if they lose trust in the other. In this play Alonso Alegría is masterful in his dramatisation of this perilous balancing act.
The play is based on the nineteenth-century aerialist, Jean François Gravelet (1824 – 97), who went by the stage name of ‘Blondin’. Among his various feats, he walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope carrying his manager, Henry Colcord, on his back.
Alonso Alegría’s play, El cruce sobre el Niágara, won the Casa de las Américas prize in 1969. It has been performed all over Europe and the Americas hundreds of times to critical acclaim.
Alegría, Alonso. 1969. El cruce sobre el Niágara. Havana, Casa de las Américas
Luchting, Wolfgang A. 1978. ‘Proliferation’, Latin American Theatre Review, 11, 2, 69-80
Luchting, Wolfgang A. 1981. ‘Getting Better: Perú, Latin American Theatre Review, 14, 2, 89-90
Luchting, Wolfgang. A. 1982. ‘The Usual and Some Better Shows: Peruvian Theatre in 1981’, Latin American Theatre Review, 15, 2, 59–63
Morris, Robert J. 1976. ‘Alonso Alegría: Dramatist and Theatrical Activist’, Latin American Theatre Review, 9, 49–55
Morris, Robert J. 1984. ‘Alonso Alegría Since The Crossing’, Latin American Theatre Review, 17, 25–9
Podestá, Bruno A. 1973. ‘Teatro Nacional Popular: Un teatro popular o la popularización del teatro?’, Latin American Theatre Review, 7,1, 33-41
Entry written by Gwendolen Mackeith. Last updated on 5 October 2010.